Make an Android App? There’s a Meta-App for That.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at 9:37 am
Jennifer Dick's picture

Google Introduces SF Bay Educators to App Inventor for Android

Mobile apps have changed our relationship with information access in the wider world. With mobile devices such as smart phones and tablet computers becoming more powerful and affordable, more people are regularly supplementing their experiences out in the world by calling up services like Google Maps, Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Four Square, and Shazam to record what they’re doing, find out what other people thought about whatever restaurant/park/business they’re at, or share their own opinion.

Ten years ago, if I passed a statue of some historic figure and wanted to learn more, I’d have to make a note and then go visit the library. Now, I can just whip out my phone and Google the name. I can also use my phone to take a geo-tagged picture, upload it to Flickr (which will automatically highlight it in my Facebook feed), share a web link about what I learned about the statue on Twitter, and check in on Four Square. What’s that song playing at the café I just passed? Shazam! “Bossa for the Devil” by Dr. Rubberfunk. Apps are changing how we interact with the world.

For youth, using apps to learn more about places as they experience them is second nature, and those apps can be powerful learning tools. What isn’t second nature is app development. Designing and building a working app generally requires some serious programming savvy, but youth are very interested in apps—they see how relevant apps are to daily life and how they’re being used by more people, more frequently—and this motivates those with an interest in tech to take the programming plunge. Learning programming can be a long slog through lots of information to create very simple programs. I remember taking an intro to CS class, which had us learn BASIC. I can’t find my notes, but I’m pretty sure it took us a week to know enough to code the “Hello, world” program that seems to be lesson 1 for just about any programming course, regardless of language. My classmates and I found our interest in programming waning fast. And if motivated college students ten years ago lost their interest so quickly, imagine what happens with the youth of today, living at a mile a minute.

Enter App Inventor for Android, a web-based app that allows users to both design and build apps utilizing a drag-and-drop user interface. One screen controls the UI (user interface) and builds the code using puzzle-piece like blocks that are put together to create the app. It's not foolproof, but it doeseliminate nearly all syntax errors from programming. There are a number of online tutorials for building sample apps that walk you through different functionality possibilities. They'renot particularly kid friendly, but adults can get through them fairly easily. Don’t have an Android device to test on? No problem: you can install an Android emulator on your computer. While not as fun as seeing your app work on the phone, it does provide faster feedback as you tweak your app. When your app is finished (the first sample app took me only about 10 minutes to create), you can save it to your Android device and take it with you.

The palette for app building is large and includes a drawing canvas, password textboxes, tinyDB (tiny database) support, and a media player; and you can tap the device’s phone, SMS, Twitter camera, accelerometer, location sensor, and device orientation sensor. Google has also included tools for use with Lego Mindstorm robot controls, which should interest robotics educators.

Our hosts at Google shared two case studies of how App Inventor's already being used by educators, both after-school programs that won the 2010 DML Competition, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation:
  • Youth Lab's Youth AppLab: Youth based in Washington DC get hands-on experience developing mobile apps, learning the software development cycle in the process. It's been so successful that parents are asking for workshops, too.
  • Youth Radio: Youth in Oakland are teaming up with professional developers through their Mobile Action Lab to propose, create, and market apps that address real needs in their communities.
App Inventor for Android is still in beta and it has its issues (mostly around phone recognition in our workshop), but it has a very active user forum with helpful folks, including a dedicated forum page for educators. I look forward to really digging into this tool to see what it can do, as well as hearing how other educators are using it with their youth.


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